Toll booth subject of praise, threats: chief

Peggy Revell

Couchiching First Nation has received everything from praise to threats after following through on its controversial plan to set up a toll booth on Highway #11 at the west end of the Noden Causeway late Friday afternoon.
“We’ve had a number of well-wishers. Some people said that we should have done this a long time ago. Some people actually gave tips,” said Chief Chuck McPherson, referring to the response from motorists who have passed through the toll booth, which the band says will stay up until the federal and provincial governments adequately address compensation for the land Highway #11 sits upon and the identified contaminated soil at the former J.A. Mathieu sawmill site.
“But on the other side of the coin, we’ve had people that have made a number of derogatory remarks, mostly racist in nature,” noted Chief McPherson.
“And I had hoped that it wouldn’t get to that point of bringing race into it,” he added, admitting that while that is their freedom of speech, he would hope people could express their disagreement in a more “civil nature.”
“If there’s any violence, it’s not going to be started by the membership of Couchiching,” Chief McPherson vowed, recounting how at one point a person had suggested bringing in warrior societies and council replied that if that happened, they would remove the booth themselves.
“Because that’s not what we’re looking for,” he stressed.
“I’m disappointed that some people have to make threatening remarks, racist remarks, because when all is said and done, we’re not going anywhere, we’re going to continue to live here.
“The people of Fort Frances are going to continue to live here, and we have to get along.”
“We’ve been telling [community members that] it’s not personal—unfortunately, it’s based on this toll booth being here, to try as best you can not to internalize those things, to be strong, the cause is bigger than any one of us,” said Coun. Sarah Mainville about how the community is dealing with threats, and the supportive way the community has set up alongside the toll booth.
“I think that our resolve strengthens when we come here,” she noted. “We’re using our spirituality a lot to strengthen what we’re doing.
“The older people here, the communication between the youth and the elders, it’s strengthening our resolve to continue, to fight for those things, those issues, to be resolved and negotiate a just settlement.
“It’s an amazing community—the community has really come together around [it],” Coun. Mainville remarked.
“We had a meeting on Sunday and they resoundingly said to continue fighting, to continue the fight,” she noted.
“The cause is worthy of the disruptions and we’ll protect each other, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”
In the meantime, the toll booth remains, with a charge of $1 for all vehicles.
The band is offering a monthly pass of $25 available at the booth or the band office (current passes combine both the months of May and June).
While some motorists have paid the toll, others have opted to drive through without paying a cent.
In a press release issued yesterday, Couchiching chief and council stated they will not impede motorists unwilling to pay the toll.
However, they support the application of Section 30 of the Indian Act which states, “A person who trespasses on a reserve is guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding $50 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding one month, or to both.”
Meanwhile, the OPP continues to monitor the toll booth area, with OPP officers present to ensure there is a safe and orderly flow of traffic.
“The OPP recognizes the need to balance individual rights and freedoms with the need to maintain public peace and order,” OPP Cst. Anne McCoy said in an e-mail to the Times yesterday about how the police are approaching the situation.
“As police officers, we will utilize our police discretion as a valid and appropriate approach to de-escalate situations.
“The primary role of the OPP is to keep the peace and ensure public safety, and as such the event has remained peaceful,” she added.
“There are many actions the police are taking to approach the matters at hand.”
Cst. McCoy said the proper exercise of police discretion should not be confused with a lack of enforcement, noting that officers actively are investigating unlawful acts.
But “we ask the public to recognize patience is required to handle the matter as public safety is the priority.”
Her e-mail also noted the OPP is “not in a position to resolve the underlying issues.”
“We appreciate the public may have many questions and we acknowledge frustrations,” she wrote.
“Please note our approach has been professional and measured, as officers recognize the matter is very complex and includes many legislative authorities who are currently reviewing the issues.”
When there are traffic delays, they are minimal, the OPP also stated.
“The Fort Frances detachment of the OPP has open lines of communication and a good working relationship with chief and council of Couchiching First Nation and the mayor and council of the Town of Fort Frances,” police also remarked.
“Our Provincial Liaison Team is working with the Couchiching First Nation community, as well as within the Town of Fort Frances, to encourage respectful behaviour and fielding questions from the public.
“Our Community Services Officer is working to keep the flow of information current and timely to the media, and has been working to relay the messages to our community partners including our schools, businesses and service agencies,” police added.
As for how long the toll booth will be up, Chief McPherson said that it depends on how the province and federal government responds to the issues behind the band’s decision to erect it.
“We hope to be making some headway, and I’ll know later on in the week,” he said, noting he and the provincial minister of aboriginal affairs will have a meeting tomorrow (May 27) concerning compensation for the land on which Highway #11 sits.
“We’re going to see what they have to offer and we’ve got some ideas that we’re going to present to them, and we’ll see how responsive they are,” Chief McPherson said, adding that the band is looking for “fair and adequate” compensation—something it hasn’t received to date.
When it comes to the contaminated soil at the former J.A. Mathieu sawmill site, Chief McPherson said they have spoken with federal Indian Affairs minister Chuck Strahl, who has indicated that the “study period” is “definitely over and it’s time for action.”
“He didn’t specify what the action is,” cautioned Chief McPherson, but noted he also will be meeting with the regional director of INAC tomorrow and that Strahl has committed to meeting the band council in the “very near future.”
“In terms of progression, we’re getting to talk to the people that make the decisions, and that looks favourable,” said Chief McPherson.
Since first going up late Friday afternoon, Chief McPherson, council, and members of the Couchiching community have taken turns manning the toll booth.
“I’m doing it for my children and their children, and to protect our land that we have—it’s not very much and that worries me,” Couchiching band member Daniel Morrisseau said Friday right before the toll booth went up.
Morrisseau, a father of four­­, had volunteered to man the toll booth on Saturday morning.
“Fear—it’s scary,” he said about his feelings of the toll booth going up, noting that if arrested, it would be the first charge he’s ever had laid against him, but he’s doing it for the community.
“It’s the first time we’ve ever done this as a community, and I don’t know how it’s going to turn out,” he admitted.
“I don’t know how it’s going to turn out and I hope it turns out good, as peaceful as can be.”